When Route 1 Ruled the Earth

The infamous highway north of Boston is charming, cheeky, and yeah, a little bit cheesy. It’s also one of my favorite places. An ode to an asphalt jungle still trapped in time.

Photo by Ken Richardson

I’m lying naked on my back on a wet-towel-draped wooden bench. At around 200 degrees, the air is so hot I worry I might pass out. As tsunami-size waves of warm water cascade over me, I hold my breath and close my eyes tight (though I can still sense the gaze of others upon me). Every time the tide ebbs, I feel a big, bear-like man lashing my bare skin over and over with thick, heavy bushels of sopping-wet oak and birch leaves.

Where the hell am I, I ask myself between whaps and thwacks, and why am I here?

These are rhetorical questions. I know the literal answers: I’m getting a traditional platza treatment inside Dillon’s Russian Steam Bath, a barebones, cement-walled sauna off U.S. Route 1 just north of Boston. And I’ve come here to help satisfy my obsession with the 17 neon-lit, motel-lined miles of the highway that are bookended by Chelsea and Danvers.

For years, whenever I’ve braved the endless stream of speeding souped-up cars on my way to-and-fro the North Shore along Route 1, I’ve found myself fascinated by the piercing stretch of road. It’s part of one of America’s first interstate highways, and with its gaudy themed restaurants, fleabag lodgings, topless bars, and assortment of other vaguely dated diversions, it still feels like a place out of time—especially when compared to Boston, just down the street. Once a working-class crazy quilt of a city, the Hub over the years has ironed out most of its weirder wrinkles and bleached its dirtier seams to become a more palatable place for white-collar types to live, work, and play. The city is cleaner and safer, for sure, but it’s also lost a bit of the peculiar grit and whimsy that is, in my opinion, an important part of what makes urban living worth the rent.

Just to the north, though, Route 1 remains the Masshole answer to Old Las Vegas—both amusingly ostentatious (there’s a pizza place with its own scaled-for-suburbia replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa) and coated with a thin layer of suburban-desert dust and grime. It is also littered with halcyon memories for absolutely everyone I’ve spoken to who grew up nearby and took it all in: from family dinners at the now-razed Hilltop Steakhouse, famed for its 68-foot-tall glowing cactus probably visible from space; to after-prom hangouts at the Kowloon, an over-the-top tiki-themed restaurant; to bachelor parties at the Golden Banana, where guests can see all-nude dancers at a bar located behind a gas station.

A Brief Timeline

A not-so-ancient history of the strip.

The Newburyport Turnpike opens as a direct route for horses and buggies to Boston; it’s paved and renamed Route 1 in the early 1920s.

A retired sea captain builds a boat-shaped restaurant on dry land, making the seafood-focused Ship one of the first audaciously themed eateries on the strip.

These and other local rites of passage can leave even the saltiest metro-Boston native feeling nostalgic these days. Between the isolating effects of the pandemic and simply getting older, many people are “starting to look back” at Route 1 with fondness and humor, says the 37-year-old hot-tub repairman and meme-maker behind the Instagram account @squareonemallgoth. Girard, who goes by his first name only and grew up in Everett, is constantly cranking out irreverent local-color-predicated jokes about nearby malls, restaurants, strip clubs, and more. It’s telling that his niche north-of-the-city account has amassed 10,000 followers and counting. “Everyone remembers their friend’s basement, or the party where they made out for the first time,” he says. “But you can’t revisit those places in the same way that you can revisit the Kowloon.”

That’s true, at least for now. Yet in recent years, Route 1’s perseverance as a stable home for a wide range of quirky businesses—and as a semi-seedy grownup playground—has come under threat from corporate chains, high-end real estate developers, and crackdowns by town zoning boards. If you ask me, that means it’s high time to paint Route 1 red and revel in its curious nooks and crannies before the rest of it falls victim to time.

And so, on this particular afternoon, my reconnaissance has brought me to Dillon’s. The oldest banya in America, it opened its doors for schvitzing in 1885. Inside, though, it feels more like Boston circa 1985; only a Larry Bird poster seems missing from the wall of beige lockers in the changing area directly beside the front desk, where a man with a sharp Slavic accent takes my name and hands me a towel and a key.

I deposit my clothes and join the regulars in their slow, ritualistic rotation between the dry sauna, steam room, gang shower, and lounge with a flat-screen TV and a stack of well-thumbed magazines. Matt Damon on the cover of GQ is the only dude who is dressed; everyone else struts around in the buff or meanders loosely draped. Although Mondays are reserved for women, this is otherwise a men-only space, something I’m surprised you can still get away with in 2022. (“There used to be YMCAs for this,” murmurs someone in the lounge who, sans shirt and pants, definitely looks like he could be a cop, a cowboy, or a construction worker.) Clearly, the fact that Dillon’s represents an endangered habitat is exactly why, over the course of a couple hours, I clock a slow but steady stream of blokes taking refuge from the miserable weather or perhaps their spouse to manspread unassailed, float around some pheromones, and generally partake in locker-room bullshitting with the boys.

“First-timer up at bat?” hoots a spectator back in the sauna, enjoying the very public show of my virgin platza massage. I holler something snarky in reply and get a chortle. Then, another deluge of water, walloping of leaves, and the sensation of strong paws rubbing a lather of olive oil and soap all over, and into, my skin. The finale is a cold shower: icy water dumped on my head out of a bright-orange Home Depot bucket. I’m left exhausted and feeling ravaged, as though I had a spa day at a fight club. It feels great. “Tell your friends,” says my grizzled, towel-kilted masseur, whose torso is a billboard of Boston-sports-team tattoos. “But not too many. A lot of people wouldn’t understand.”

Well, I think, as I head back to the locker room, I guess we’ll find out.

Steam room regulars at Dillon’s Russian Steam Bath. / Photo by Ken Richardson

The Leaning Tower-capped Prince Pizzeria, formerly known as Prince Spaghetti House, is a Route 1 landmark. / Photo by Ken Richardson

A pie from Prince Pizzeria. / Photo by Ken Richardson

It’s time to go dinosaur hunting.

Dillon’s, squatting in Chelsea under the shadow of the Tobin Bridge, is the type of anachronistic curiosity that lives on the fringes of Route 1. The heart of the concrete jungle, though, has to be Saugus, home to the strip’s single most famous mascot: a bright, DayGlo-orange statue of a Tyrannosaurus rex. He/she/they doesn’t have a name, and doesn’t need one. Everyone in a 20-mile radius seems to know and honor the thing, like it’s Christ the Redeemer or the Statue of Liberty. What it really is: a relic of a bygone miniature golf course that served as a popular spot for nearly 60 years. Once upon a time, a local craft brewery even named a beer for the orange beast.

Under the ownership of the Wong family, the Mandarin House restaurant is renamed Kowloon Restaurant and begins its expansion from a 50- to a 1,200-seat empire.

After scoring his 21st goal of the season with the Boston Bruins, legend Bobby Orr celebrates his 21st birthday at Caruso’s Diplomat, a swinging cocktail lounge and function hall.

Owing to the inexplicable lack of turning lanes on Route 1, driving on it is like something out of an action movie. So I have to swerve my car into the nearest parking lot as soon as I see the 12-plus-foot-tall, traffic-cone-colored icon come into view, braying at the sky from its perch atop a retaining wall, high above the road. It was moved there in 2017, after developers purchased the family-owned mini-golf lot below and unveiled plans for a mixed-use luxury residential and retail complex. Thanks to public outcry, the kitschy fossil was preserved, although for some it’s a bittersweet victory. “It’s a little bit sad,” says Girard of @squareonemallgoth, “to see the landmarks of your childhood adorning the dwellings of the people who displaced your families.”

This wasn’t the first time that collective goodwill saved a dearly beloved Route 1 landmark from extinction: In 2015, when the site of the sprawling, western-themed Hilltop Steakhouse was being demolished to make way for a new mixed-use plaza, AvalonBay Communities chose—thankfully—to refurbish the late restaurant’s sky-high cactus sign. It remains a bright-burning beacon. And the fiberglass cows that once grazed the Hilltop lawn? Three of them now decorate a different commercial neighborhood in Lynnfield. Phew.

It may sound silly to put so much emotional stock in the suburban-skyline equivalents of Boston’s Citgo sign. Yet it’s hard to dispute that Route 1’s orange dinosaur (circa 1958), Hilltop cactus (circa 1961), and other lingering vestiges of midcentury flash—such as Prince Pizzeria’s illuminated Leaning Tower of Pisa replica (circa 1958), and the Asia-Pacific-inspired Kowloon Restaurant’s 30-foot-tall tiki god over the front door (circa 1970)—are legitimate artifacts of Bay State Americana. They represent the weird roadside attractions that emerged at a time when many nuclear city families made an exodus to the budding suburbs, and (before I-95 started stealing away pit stops) set up mom-and-pop shops and restaurants with endearingly garish signs and storefronts to catch the eyes of kids crammed into station wagons. And they sold more than just big portions and big fun, says noted photographer and Tufts professor emeritus Jim Dow, whose works highlighting everyday people’s everyday places have been exhibited by museums across the country. “They offered,” he says, “accessibility to a relaxing, aspiring, middle-class lifestyle to people who, in many cases, did not live that way in the rest of their lives.”

As the decades rolled along, so did the feel-good times, adds Dan Doherty, director of operations for Kelly’s Roast Beef, a North Shore legend that estimates selling more than a million piled-high sandwiches across its four locations each year. In the ’90s, Kelly’s opened its second, largest, and still-busiest location on Route 1, decorating it with nods to the similarly rollicking original on the Revere Beach boardwalk, where Doherty started working at the front counter as a teenager: carousel horses, a huge grinning clown head salvaged from a fun house, and a 1,000-gallon saltwater tank filled with tropical fish. “We had to hire a detail cop just to deal with the after-club crowds that would come to hang out here, half in the bag,” says Doherty, referring to the hungry hordes that used to migrate over from now-closed nightspots such as the Palace and the Bahama Beach Club.

Those places might be gone, but Route 1 revelry lives on, I discover, when I hit the Kowloon with some friends one Friday evening—our first stop for a big blowout night on the town(s). We start off by stuffing ourselves with plates of crispy, creamy crab Rangoon and sucking down a birdbath-size scorpion bowl at a four-sided, thatch-roofed tiki bar near a glowing, spurting water fountain. It’s just one of several schtick-y setups inside the multi-room emporium of Asian-American eats and booze. There’s also a table-service space designed like a ship deck, complete with masts, sails, suspended lifeboats, and faux palm trees. Upstairs is the Kowloon Komedy stage, where a young Jerry Seinfeld once performed. In warm weather, the parking lot turns into a beach-bar setup with live music, drive-in movies, and more.

Where to next? we ponder as we collect the check and prepare to bounce. Should we head to Town Line Luxury Lanes to go “atomic bowling” under fluorescent black lights, sink some 8-balls at the billiard tables, or hit the dance floor at Mixx360, the rafters-rattling nightclub attached? Should we strap on skates at Roller World, an ’80s time warp of a nearby roller rink, to move and groove like we’re in Xanadu? All of the above?

Time will tell, but depending on what goes down, we may not. Saugus isn’t Sin City, but everyone knows that similar rules do apply: “What happens on Route 1,” Dow puts it to me later, “stays on Route 1.”

Members of the Kowloon’s Wong family. / Photo by Ken Richardson

Bowling at Town Line Luxury Lanes. / Photo by Ken Richardson

Bowling at Town Line Luxury Lanes. / Photo by Ken Richardson

A guest in laced-up skates at Roller World, a retro rink in Saugus. / Photo by Ken Richardson

Once upon a time, says Lenny Clarke, a classic night out on Route 1 looked a lot like this: “You’d get fucked up, and you’d get a motel.”

Clarke’s not kidding, which is unusual: He is a comedian, after all. More important, though, before he was popping up on TV shows and movies (including the latest Halloween flick, where—spoiler alert!—he gets slaughtered), Clarke and his loud, croaky Boston accent have been telling dirty jokes for three-plus decades as a fixture at Giggles, an old-school comedy club housed within Prince Pizzeria. The gray-haired saloon jester has seen a lot of life while working Route 1, but when I meet him before his set to hear what stands out to him most, he tells me it’s the place’s storied spirit of debauchery: boozing, fisticuffs, and screwing on squeaky mattresses. “It seemed like there used to be 50 or 60 motels,” he says, “for teens to go to together who just wanted to get laid.”

The Hilltop Steakhouse rakes in $60 million, the high watermark of a period in which it is widely considered the highest-grossing restaurant in the country, and perhaps the world.

America’s then-hottest couple, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, tear up the dance floor at the massive Palace nightclub complex, which went “Bye Bye Bye” in 2004.

Themed restaurants offering flaming pupu platters, of course, aren’t the only entertaining diversions that pop up along this stretch of interstate highway. Where there are transients and truckers passing through town and copious amounts of alcohol in bars where it’s easy to blend in, so too will you still find motels that at least look like they charge by the hour, and probably a couple of sex shops selling sundry supplies.

In other words, Route 1 has a horny side. For the beginner-level libertine, there’s a Hooters restaurant, serving Buffalo wings and much food for feminist thought. Nowadays you can see more skin from most Instagram models, though, so intermediaries may want to skip straight to one of the three area strip clubs, including the top- and bottomless Golden Banana. And although Peabody’s Amazing Intimate Essentials is stocked with porn DVDs and sex toys for takeout, advanced anthropologists of erotica would appreciate the stench of history (we’ll call it history) at the woman-owned Stardust Video. An aluminum-sided shack on an industrial bystreet in Everett, it’s a rare remaining sex shop that still rents out person-size video booths for taking care of business on the spot.

After Clarke’s show at Giggles, my friends and I decide to take in the scene (and some whiskey) at the Golden Banana. Behind the bar, a server in a cathouse corset playfully tweaks the brim of a flirty patron’s hat and then, with a wry smile, backs away so she can volley an ice cube straight at his face. Boop! On the stage, a dancer wearing nothing but sparkly high heels bumps and grinds on all fours, slides her backside up to a wide-eyed customer sitting stiffly upright and holding a stack of crisp dollar bills, and reaches around to slap—pat, pat, pat!—at the cleavage of her legs. The dancer beams, seemingly thrilled by her own button-pushing.

That said, vice does thrive in the shadows, and the miles of roadside along Route 1 are certainly scattered with their own unsavory tales of mob ties, Hells Angels gang knavery, and more. It was less than 10 years ago that Route 1 saw the felling of Saugus’s notorious Ferns Motel, a sordid-feeling hidey-hole that was once the site of a SWAT team standoff, as well as the demolition of Stardust’s old neighbor King Arthur’s Lounge, a cinderblock strip club where more than one murder, including an infamous police brutality case, occurred.

Tragically, the strip is also known for its ties to commercial sex trafficking. In fact, Route 1’s motels are “notorious” for being places where pimps arrange for sex, including with minors, says Lisa Goldblatt Grace, cofounder of My Life My Choice, a Boston-based nonprofit that works to prevent child sex trafficking and support young survivors. She’s heard the stories from local survivors—disproportionately girls of color and LGBTQ+ youth, she says—who are, on average, 14 years old when they are first exploited. “There’s a lot of violence and trauma happening there,” Goldblatt Grace says.

Learning all of this certainly shatters any illusion that Route 1’s hedonistic energy is strictly harmless—as does the fact that all three of the area strip clubs have been hit by lawsuits (some cases have been settled, some are still pending) for forcing dancers to share tips or pay fees to work. Maybe that faded Polaroid Clarke described of Route 1 as a sexy-seedy Shangri-la is just that—faded.

Outside the Everett sex shop Stardust Video. / Photo by Ken Richardson

A dancer wearing knee-high stiletto boots at the Golden Banana, a strip club in Peabody. / Photo by Ken Richardson

Standup comedy at Giggles. / Photo by Ken Richardson

Karl’s, the best place for wurst. / Photo by Ken Richardson

Tricia O’Neill has spent a lot of gas money on Route 1. As a Gloucester-based artist who makes elaborate signs (her handpainted murals have adorned Fenway Park, among other major sites), she views the Hilltop’s cactus and other similarly striking designs as exemplars of a dying craft. She’s also a professional photographer, so a few years ago she traveled U.S. Route 1, from Maine to the Pennsylvania line, to document these dwindling waymarks before they totally disappear. The Ferns Motel and Hilltop cactus are her bestselling images—clearly many more people want to hold fast to memories that are fading. “I wanted to pay homage to the sign painters who came before me,” O’Neill says. “While I was photographing, I could see it changing.”

Hungry night owls rejoice when New England’s first Sonic drive-through restaurant opens in Peabody, serving fast-food burgers and shakes, plus retro carhop service, till 2 a.m.

In an early casualty of still-ongoing redevelopment on Route 1, a wrecking ball arrives for Weylu’s a colossal and infamously decadent Chinese restaurant that took three years to build in the ’80s.

For all the character and color that you find on Route 1 today, it’s a far cry from even a decade ago, when now-demolished landmarks such as the Ship, a huge seafood and Italian restaurant in the shape of a building-size boat, and Weylu’s, a massive Chinese restaurant built (at a cost of $13 million in late-’80s dollars) in the style of a Forbidden City palace, still dotted the road. For a lot of locals, the loss of places like these lands like a gut punch. “It’s nice to remember the past, and pay tribute to where you came from,” says Ron DiVincenzo, general manager of Cap World on Route 1. That’s why DiVincenzo commissioned a local artist to cover part of his Saugus truck-accessories shop with a colorful mural depicting current and bygone Route 1 landmarks: Weylu’s, for one, as well as the top-hat-and-monocle-wearing mascot of the former Planters Peanut House in Peabody. As it turned out, the mural ran afoul of Saugus bylaws that were introduced decades ago to rein in the very kind of old-school, ostentatious signs DiVincenzo hoped to celebrate. A few months ago, Cap World was put on notice to cover or remove the mural.

Ben Sturniolo, chairperson of Saugus’s zoning board of appeals, explains that while existing signs like the Hilltop cactus are grandfathered in, new additions to the landscape must meet stricter criteria related to size, color, and more, to keep the roadside less distracting and—let’s face it—chintzy-looking. “The town fathers saw Route 1 going the way of the Las Vegas strip,” Sturniolo says. “They didn’t want it to become totally outrageous.”

Local bureaucracy plays a role in the changing face of Route 1, but it’s also impossible to ignore how the influx of big-box stores and chain restaurants have pushed out family-owned establishments: Even the Hilltop Steakhouse, which was the highest-grossing restaurant in the entire country in the late 1980s, cited “increased competition” when it closed in 2013.

The environment hasn’t improved since then, says Bobby Wong, the sharp-dressed co-owner of the Kowloon, when he joins me at the sushi bar of the restaurant his parents purchased in 1958—back when it held only about 50 seats—and transformed into a 1,200-seat playground of a restaurant that at one time reportedly raked in about $8 million in annual revenue. Even the Kowloon, he says, can’t last forever. He and his siblings grew up taking toddler naps in the backroom while his parents toiled out front. Today, they run the place. But Wong’s own kids won’t be taking over the family business, and frankly, he adds, knowing the odds stacked against the restaurant, he wouldn’t advise it. “It’s a hard life,” Wong says. “If you polled my siblings, ‘Do you want your children working this type of lifestyle?’ It would be a no.” Instead, although the exact timeline is TBD, in years to come the Kowloon will be torn down to make way for another mixed-use development. Wong believes that some version of the restaurant will live on within the roughly 40,000 square feet of commercial space the demolition will create.

What the new development will look like, and how it will comport to the current look of Route 1, remains an open question. But at least some of the roadway’s new residents are doing what they can to keep the vibe of the strip alive. That’s what I find myself thinking, anyway, as I breathe in the smell of dough and coffee at Kane’s Donuts, a cult-favorite baker of creative flavors such as “caramel apple candy crunch” and “blueberry blast.” Kane’s is a North Shore institution, so when the developers behind Essex Landing came calling, the shop’s owner, Paul Delios, felt the weight of opening a second Saugus location on the former site of the dearly departed miniature golf course.

He had one stipulation: “They were talking about tearing the [mini-golf] sign down,” Delios, who looks like he could be the cleanshaven cousin of Dunkin’s former pitchman, Fred the Baker, tells me over coffee. “I told them, ‘If you take that sign down, we’re not coming to Route 1.’”

As a result, what used to be a big, round golf ball was reimagined as a chocolate doughnut. Standing below it after a java break, I snap a picture of the landmark, as well as the famed fiberglass T. rex looming above. Traffic whizzes by. A flock of white birds flap their way past the orange dinosaur. Things evolve—but if you know where to look, this beast of a road is still roaring.

The North Shore Newbie’s Road Map to Route 1 Landmarks